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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23457


Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (4:35 PM) —I move:

That the amendments be disagreed to.

These amendments to the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2003 passed by the Senate will not be supported by the government. As I indicated in the House last week when we first debated these amendments, their effect would be to remove the arms-length approach to the allocation of capital grants to non-government schools. This arms-length approach was introduced by the Australian Labor Party in 1988. It has operated effectively for both government and non-government schools since that time.

Under the current arrangements, expert block grant authorities made up of representatives from their respective education sectors assess all applications for capital funding from non-government schools against detailed ministerially approved guidelines and provide recommendations to the government on projects and schools to be funded. In making their recommendations, the block grant authorities are required to take into account both the financial needs of individual schools and the relative educational disadvantage of the student population of each school, with the more disadvantaged being given priority over the less disadvantaged. Their methodology is primarily quantitative and must be sufficient to justify recommendations to an independent appeal body or to a departmental audit.

The amendments would fundamentally change the relationship between the minister and the block grant authorities. Instead of relying upon the professional judgment of the granting authorities for funding recommendations, the government would be required—at some considerable expense—to check every project recommendation to enable the minister to make a determination specifying educational and financial need. That could spell the end of the arms-length approach by government to decisions on schools' capital funding—indeed, it would.

It is telling that the proposed amendments do not apply to Australian government grants to government schools, despite the bulk of capital grants going to these schools. Further, the non-government school sector was not fully consulted on these amendments and does not support the amendments. Senator Carr was misrepresenting the position of the non-government school sector when he said in the Senate last night that the sector is supportive of these amendments. The sector has made it quite clear to me, both verbally and in writing, that it does not support the amendments. In fact, Mr Allan Dooley, the Acting Chair of the National Catholic Education Commission, in a letter to me dated 27 November 2003 said in part:

Dear Dr Nelson,

... ... ...

1. We believe the amendment may limit the ability of the minister—of whatever political party—to set Government priorities for the Capital Grants Program. ...

2. The amendment may lead to the duplication of assessment of applications for capital funding, with the Commonwealth having to double-check the decision of Block Grant Authorities, as the Minister may require the department to advise him or her as to the correctness of the BGA assessments. This may lead to inefficiency and uncertainty.

Mr Bill Daniels, the executive director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, in a letter also of 27 November 2003 addressed to me said:

Dear Minister,

I note from the Hansard of the debate yesterday on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2003, that it could be interpreted that the Independent Schools Council of Australia supports the amendments to the legislation proposed by Ms Macklin. I have written today to Ms Macklin to clarify our position and I attach a copy of my letter to her for your information.

... ... ...

... I confirm that in our view the amendments proposed by Ms Macklin are unnecessary.

Any decisions which change the way programs are administered for the non-government schools sector should be made in consultation with the sector. There are already substantial mechanisms in place to ensure full accountability of Australian government grants. Last week, for example, I tabled States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 2000: report on financial assistance granted to each state in respect of 2002, which documents every single grant to every school—government and non-government. Block grant authorities are regularly audited by the government on their operations and management of the capital grants program. The Australian government is happy to discuss further accountability and transparency mechanisms, but any change should be made in consultation with the school authorities, should apply to both government and non-government schools and should be dealt with at an appropriate time and not tagged into what should otherwise be an uncontroversial bill. As such, these amendments should be rejected.